Business people often look to their sporting heroes for inspiration. But sometimes they draw the wrong conclusions. They buy into the myth of the tyrannical, dominant manager or coach instead of the reality. Nothing worthwhile happens suddenly in business. But sporting triumphs are remembered for individual moments of genius or drama. The camera zooms in on the exultant boss. Ah, we say, that's what leadership looks like.

But of course most of the leadership has taken place away from the cameras, on the training ground or in the dressing room (or, these days, seminar room). And the work involved to achieve victory has happened on the pitch, the field of play. It has been carried out by the team players. The boss in the dug-out at the side of the pitch has not kicked or struck a single ball.

Sir Alex Ferguson
'Sir Alex Ferguson's most important qualities were the more humdrum, human ones of persistence and determination'Getty

These caveats are necessary before giving in to the temptation to worship a sporting boss as a role model for business leaders.

The cult of Sir Alex Ferguson, the former Manchester United manager, is getting another surge of support just now with new book Leading (written by Ferguson and Sir Michael Moritz, a venture capitalist), and a BBC documentary, Sir Alex Ferguson: Secrets of Success, which will be broadcast on 11 October and presented by the corporation's former political editor, Nick Robinson.

So here we see figures from business and politics helping to sustain the story of Ferguson. And it is a great story. A working-class boy from Glasgow, a decent but unexceptional player for Rangers, becoming one of the most successful (and long-surviving) football managers of recent times – 27 years he lasted, between 1986 and 2013. This will probably never happen again. Today, English football managers remain in post for an average of 15 months. It is a cut-throat and highly impatient business.

Fergie could have been sacked from United after his first three trophyless seasons and was possibly quite close to being dismissed before a late winner in an FA Cup match against Nottingham Forest in 1990 turned his situation around. United went on to win the cup that season and the glorious Fergie saga had began.

Hairdryer treatment and man-management

So what can we really learn from his story? People love to talk about the shouting – the "hairdryer treatment" – but forget about the attention to detail, the sensitive man-management, the ruthlessness in casting out stars who no longer fit, and the relentless pursuit of sustained, long-term success.

After winning the Champions League final in 2008, Ferguson said: "The thing about me is that I won't get carried away with it, and tomorrow morning I will be thinking about next season... It drains away very quickly – that drug, that final moment. I will be thinking about the future and looking into the players' eyes to make sure their hunger is still there."

sir bobby robson
'Sir Bobby Robson, the former Ipswich Town and England manager, once asked: "How do you make a millionaire sweat?'Getty

Here was a glimpse of the true Ferguson, I think: almost permanently dissatisfied and looking for more. Here also is a hint of what set him apart as a manager of rich young men – the force of personality that won and demanded respect. The late Sir Bobby Robson, the former Ipswich Town and England manager, once asked: "How do you make a millionaire sweat?" Ferguson showed us.

Moritz is naturally adulatory. He said: "He could be the father confessor, the motivational speaker, the priest, the judge, the jury, the Lord High Executioner, the puppet master and the inspirational figure all in the course of one day."

That may all be true, if a little over the top. But Ferguson's most important qualities were the more humdrum, human ones of persistence and determination. He hated losing and never gave up. He may have had Harvard Business School case studies written about him and he may be worshipped by some as a force of nature, but the essential truth about Ferguson remains more basic, and all the more powerful for it.


Stefan Stern is a business, management and politics writer. He writes for The Guardian and The Financial Times and is a visiting professor at Cass Business School.